U.S. Foreign Aid Pilot Program Sparks Fight With Congress

A “game-changing” bill hits an impasse over programs in Haiti and Libya.

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy, and , a former intern at Foreign Policy.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (left) speaks with Sen. Chris Coons
Sen. Lindsey Graham (left) speaks with Sen. Chris Coons
Sen. Lindsey Graham (left) speaks with Sen. Chris Coons before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Aug. 5, 2020. Erin Schaff/Pool via Getty Images

A landmark U.S. foreign aid bill, passed nearly three years ago, has hit a snag amid an impasse between Congress and the Biden administration over where to start funding these foreign aid programs.

The Global Fragility Act, passed by Congress in December 2019, was hailed by experts as a potential game-changer in the world of U.S. foreign aid and a rare feat of bipartisan support for reforming American soft power abroad to stem the tide of instability and autocracy in the world’s most politically unstable regions. But Democratic Sen. Chris Coons and Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham have objected to the administration’s plan to begin Global Fragility Act pilot programs in Libya and Haiti, according to officials and aides familiar with the matter. They argue that the programs, aimed at tackling the root causes of instability, extremism, conflict, and extreme poverty, require cooperative partner governments to work effectively. The debate hinges on whether Libya’s and Haiti’s governments are too fragile for the Global Fragility Act. 

The dispute, detailed to Foreign Policy by four current and former officials as well as congressional aides, also stems from the fact that some lawmakers feel the Biden administration didn’t properly brief Congress on what countries it would pick to begin Global Fragility Act pilot programs in advance—though administration officials reject that characterization.

A landmark U.S. foreign aid bill, passed nearly three years ago, has hit a snag amid an impasse between Congress and the Biden administration over where to start funding these foreign aid programs.

The Global Fragility Act, passed by Congress in December 2019, was hailed by experts as a potential game-changer in the world of U.S. foreign aid and a rare feat of bipartisan support for reforming American soft power abroad to stem the tide of instability and autocracy in the world’s most politically unstable regions. But Democratic Sen. Chris Coons and Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham have objected to the administration’s plan to begin Global Fragility Act pilot programs in Libya and Haiti, according to officials and aides familiar with the matter. They argue that the programs, aimed at tackling the root causes of instability, extremism, conflict, and extreme poverty, require cooperative partner governments to work effectively. The debate hinges on whether Libya’s and Haiti’s governments are too fragile for the Global Fragility Act. 

The dispute, detailed to Foreign Policy by four current and former officials as well as congressional aides, also stems from the fact that some lawmakers feel the Biden administration didn’t properly brief Congress on what countries it would pick to begin Global Fragility Act pilot programs in advance—though administration officials reject that characterization.

It underscores mounting frustrations in Washington that this “game-changing” approach to U.S. foreign aid, signed into law in December 2019 by then-U.S. president Donald Trump, is taking too long to implement. Critics say the aid package has become bogged down in slow-moving bureaucracies and internal government infighting, though nearly everyone agrees that none of these hurdles is enough to derail the Global Fragility Act.

“It’s supposed to be this massive new breakthrough test in how we do foreign aid,” said one person involved in implementing the programs, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Now what you have, at least temporarily, is this giant mess where all these implementers who have been gearing up to work on this massive new initiative in two of the countries are now having to press pause and just sit there waiting for these disputes to be sorted out.”

The Global Fragility Act was born out of years of soul-searching in the U.S. policy community about the failures and shortcomings of U.S. foreign aid. If Washington was sending tens of billions of dollars to aid countries like Somalia, South Sudan, or, until recently, Afghanistan, and those countries were only becoming less stable, there had to be a fundamental flaw in the U.S. approach.

“Clearly the way we’ve been working isn’t working,” said Liz Hume, executive director of the Alliance for Peacebuilding nonprofit. “When you bring that up to policymakers all around town, you get a lot of nodding heads. So why do we just keep doing the same exact thing?”

One of the chief criticisms of U.S. aid programs is that separate streams of U.S. foreign aid funding—on education, on countering extremism, on health, on economic support—are effectively siloed and operate independently from one another. Another criticism is that most U.S. foreign aid packages are launched after crises occur, in a reactive way that relies on short-term scrambles to fight fires wherever they flare up in the world. 

“The tendency is to put together these very big, bureaucratic programs with lots of consultants,” said Dave Peterson, the senior director of the Africa Program of the private grant-making fund National Endowment for Democracy. But often on the ground, these expensive projects don’t take hold because locals don’t engage with them, Peterson said: “The people who are supposed to be getting help don’t really have any sort of ownership.”

The Global Fragility Act seeks to change that, authorizing around $200 million per year over a 10-year strategy in five pilot programs aimed at integrating all aspects of foreign aid into one coherent strategy and stabilizing at-risk countries before crises occur. “This is intended to demonstrate a more thoughtful way of doing stabilization programs that could eventually become a framework for overall U.S. foreign aid policy in many corners of the globe,” said a senior congressional aide familiar with the matter, who spoke on condition of anonymity, as they were not authorized to speak publicly.

Under the Global Fragility Act, the Biden administration was tasked with picking four pilot countries and one region to start new programs aimed at tackling the root causes of fragility and political instability. It announced those picks in April: Haiti, Libya, Mozambique, Papua New Guinea, and a grouping of five Coastal West African countries (Benin, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Guinea, and Togo) that will take part in the revamped U.S. strategy.

The internal planning process—where the State Department is leading the effort to devise specific strategies for each of the five pilot locations—is now underway, officials said. But almost immediately, Graham and Coons, who lead an influential Senate subcommittee that oversees funding for U.S. diplomacy and foreign aid, objected to the administration’s choices of Libya and Haiti, arguing they’re not the right fit for this new program. 

In Haiti, one of the pilot countries over which lawmakers are reaching an impasse, recent spikes in gang violence between criminal groups in the capital city, Port-au-Prince, suggest that Haiti is too unstable to host the program. Libya has been wracked by years of violent conflict after the 2011 ouster of longtime dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi, and it is still facing massive instability as two rival governments vie for power.

Both Haiti and Libya rank among the countries viewed as the most corrupt, sitting at 164th and 172nd out of 180 countries, respectively, scored by corruption tracking organization Transparency International. 

The lawmakers fear these countries are too unstable at this point for Global Fragility Act programs to be effectively implemented, unlike Papua New Guinea or Mozambique, which have a baseline of relative stability and governments interested in cooperating, even if they still face serious issues with governance, corruption, and instability. “On the spectrum of fragility, there is a sweet spot for implementation here,” said the senior congressional aide. 

A State Department spokesperson defended the process of country selection for the pilot program, saying it came after “an interagency process of in-depth analysis and extensive consultations” with Congress.

There is mounting pressure on the administration to move quickly, especially given the nearly three years between the act’s passage and country selection.

“There’s never going to be a perfect candidate, but we still have to try,” said Kate Phillips-Barrasso, vice president of global policy and advocacy at the humanitarian organization Mercy Corps. “Especially for these pilot countries, you could debate until the cows come home, ‘Are these the right ones?’” 

There is also creeping pressure to move quickly on the Global Fragility Act when it comes to the United States’ mounting efforts to compete with China geopolitically in conflict-prone regions and showcase Washington as a long-term partner of choice in aid and development over Beijing.

“The Chinese are running circles around the U.S. when it comes to engagement assistance, loans programs in Africa,” said Peterson, who estimated that China is spending at least 10 times as much as the United States is in Africa. “They’re cultivating relationships in Africa, they’re winning goodwill,” he said. “They are very forward looking.”

Hume said she remains confident the Global Fragility Act will move forward, even despite all the snags and delays so far, because it still has bipartisan support, and because Washington simply can’t afford not to rethink how to do foreign aid and conflict prevention.

“We’ve got to start finding a way to get ahead of these conflicts,” she said. “Otherwise, we’re always going to be scrambling and reacting, from crisis to crisis to crisis.”

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Mary Yang is a former intern at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @MaryRanYang

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